48km (30 miles) W of Madrid, 52km (32 miles) SE of Segovia

Without a doubt, one of the most unforgettable excursions from Madrid is to the austere royal monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Philip II ordered the construction of this granite-and-slate behemoth in 1563, 2 years after he moved his capital to Madrid. Once the haunt of aristocratic Spaniards, El Escorial is now a resort where hotels and restaurants flourish in summer, as hundreds come to escape the heat of the capital. Aside from the appeal of its climate, the town of San Lorenzo itself is not very noteworthy. But because of the monastery's size, you might decide to spend a night or two at San Lorenzo -- or more if you have the time.

A Good Base for Exploring Castilla y Leon's Prize Cities -- San Lorenzo (barely an hour from Madrid) makes a good base for visiting the Spanish capital and nearby Segovia, the royal palace at La Granja, and the Valley of the Fallen, or even -- farther afield -- Burgos, which is the site of one of Spain's very finest cathedrals.